This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is the best and easy to make. The bread crumbs on top and creamy comfort food underneath are proof that homemade tastes infinitely better than that store-bought stuff in the blue box. Here’s how to make it.
With this baked macaroni and cheese that’s creamy and homemade and honest-to-goodness soul food, there’s no reason to eat the stuff in the blue box from Kraft. Not when the real deal is so easy to make from scratch.
You’re going to want to use a Cheddar cheese with some character. You know, the sorta expensive, hauntingly sharp Cheddar from someplace where they know what they’re doing, like England or Vermont or Wisconsin. And you’re not going to want to forget those satiatingly buttery bread crumbs sprinkled on top.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- Coarse salt
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 4 to 5 tablespoons (2 to 2 1/2 oz) unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
- 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard (optional)
- A pinch to 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- 3 cups shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
- 1/2 cup coarse fresh or dried bread crumbs
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
- Salt a large pot of water generously, so it tastes like the sea. Bring the water to a boil and then add the macaroni and cook according to the package directions.
- Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and whisk until smooth. Cook, whisking constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Still whisking vigorously, slowly pour in the milk. If the sauce gets lumpy, don’t worry; just keep whisking until it becomes smooth again. Lower the heat and simmer (yes, still whisking frequently!) until creamy and smooth, 7 to 8 minutes.
- Add 1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, the pepper, and the mustard and/or nutmeg, if using. Take the pan off the heat and add 2 1/2 cups Cheddar and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Whisk until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste and add more seasonings, if you like.
- Drain the macaroni and return it to the pot. Dump the sauce on top of the macaroni and toss thoroughly to coat. Turn out the macaroni mixture into a large cast-iron skillet, a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, or another generously sized casserole dish. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining Cheddar and Parmesan.
- One last thing. Melt the remaining butter in a small skillet. (Use 2 tablespoons for uber-buttery bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon for swimsuit-season bread crumbs.) Drizzle the butter over the bread crumbs in a bowl and toss to coat. Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the macaroni.
- Bake until the crumbs are browned and the macaroni is warmed through, 20 minutes if you're in a hurry or, if you're in no rush and prefer a creamier sauce, up to an hour or so. You will need to cover the dish after 15 minutes or so to prevent the crumbs from browning too much.
- Let the macaroni and cheese rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes before scooping it out in heaping portions.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese VariationWhile the classic is always welcome, try mixing things up on occasion… Smoky Green Chile Version Add a 4-ounce can diced mild green chiles, drained, to the macaroni mixture before turning it into the baking dish. Add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika to the buttered crumbs. “Tuna Melt” Version Substitute 1 cup grated Havarti or Fontina cheese for 1 cup of the Cheddar when you make the sauce (you’ll still need a total of 3 cups cheese plus the 1/2 cup Parmesan or pecorino). Add two 5-ounce cans tuna, drained, and 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest to the macaroni before turning it into the baking dish.
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Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
This is, hands down, one of the best baked macaroni and cheese recipes I’ve ever made. The Parmesan cheese added a great smoky flavor and I’ll never make mac and cheese without it now. This is going into a weekly rotation in our lunch and dinner schedule. To make this into a one-pot meal, instead of just a side dish, I added some honeyed ham before baking—it turned out awesome!
This baked macaroni and cheese recipe was fantastic. It’s so much better than the boxed mac and cheese and not that much more labor-intensive. The buttered bread crumbs on top really make this dish. It’s perfect comfort food.
This macaroni and cheese is classic, creamy, and wonderfully cheesy. I made the green chile variation and the base tasted like chile con queso. I’d probably just add more butter to the topping next time.
I thought this baked macaroni and cheese recipe was outstanding! I’m always a little bit disappointed by most homemade mac and cheese recipes (let alone the box—I must be getting old because I don’t care at all for that anymore), but this one was great. I made the tuna melt version and thought it turned out perfectly with great flavor. And it was easy to make as well. Will definitely make again.
I remember the first time I had homemade macaroni and cheese. My college roommate, who truth be told wasn’t much of a cook, led me into our kitchen, took out a secret recipe card from her mother, and proceeded to make the first macaroni and cheese I’d ever had that didn’t come from a box. It was a revelation, and I haven’t looked back since. Now you’re probably thinking, how is this version better than any version out there? I’ll let you in on a little secret—it’s the simplicity of the dish. I used aged extra-sharp Cheddar, grated the Parmesan cheese myself, and added only the nutmeg (along with salt and pepper) to flavor the cheese sauce. Definitely take the extra time to make the bread crumbs from stale bread, as it’s worth the effort. I haven’t been able to recreate the macaroni and cheese my roommate made, but I’ll admit, this is the closest I’ve been since.
The smoky green chile version of this comfort food staple provides all the satisfaction of the basic home-cooked dish with a little extra pizzazz. The spices—including the optional dry mustard and nutmeg—complement the creaminess of the cheese sauce. I’d reduce the amount of smoked paprika a bit when making this version again. Personally, I found 1/2 teaspoon to be a little too strong, especially since it’s concentrated in the crumbs on the top. I also think I’d prefer the crumbs lightly toasted before they go on top of the casserole, for an extra crunch.
I prepared this baked macaroni and cheese earlier in the day for dinner. Because it was pretty cold from the fridge, I baked it for longer than the time specified ,and it became creamy and toasty with the bread crumbs. Everyone was really happy with it. Next time, I’ll cut down on the nutmeg because it stood out too much for me. This recipe is economical, as it does make a lot. The first night I had my husband get some fried chicken to go with it, and the next night, we grilled some steaks. Tonight, we will diet.
This baked macaroni and cheese is a wonderful addition to any cook’s repertoire. It’s easy to make with great directions. I love that the recipe use both Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses.
Be sure to add the nutmeg and the ground mustard; I added both ingredients, and the dish was terrific.
If you add the salt to the water when cooking the pasta, you won’t need to add any extra salt to the sauce. I used dried bread crumbs instead of fresh ones and it worked just as well. The macaroni and cheese reheats well in the microwave, in case there are any leftovers. Enjoy!
I liked the creamy feel to this baked macaroni and cheese. We all loved it and I’ll make it again.
We decided to add homemade bacon bits on the top, too. My husband thinks we should add anchovies next time, so we’ll definitely try that. I’m not sure if it was the cheeses I used, but I was expecting a stronger extra-sharp Cheddar taste.
Originally published October 09, 2020
I came to Leite’s for a trusted recipe – and I found it.
I wanted to use up special pasta AND create something that would be kid-friendly.
I added peas (veg) and pieces of bacon (protein), and it was pretty much a hit (well, it seems you can’t please all the people all the time). 4/5 went back for seconds. Feeds well a family of 5.
Notes, if you’re in the Netherlands (or Europe): I used a mix of Emmentaler, Cheddar, and ‘jong belegen’ (local, young matured cheese). I wanted to stay pretty ‘mild’ or neutral in taste as we have some picky eaters.
Wonderful, Jody. I’m so pleased that this was a win for you. Can’t wait to hear what you try next.
Hello, what size skillet did you use? I have a standard size but wondering if it’s too small for the full recipe! Thanks!
Amy, you’ll need a 10 or 12-inch skillet. There’s a lot of mac and cheese in this!